Chinese President Xi Jinping is deemed certain to be re-elected as the top leader of the Chinese Communist Party for another five years in this fall’s party congress, which is held once every five years. Xi’s grip on power as a “core leader” now seems unshakable. His authoritarian political approach on the strength of increased concentration of power around him, however, risks breeding sources of long-term instability. Xi should use his unrivaled power instead to pursue democratic reforms to widen the scope of people’s political freedom, which will contribute to making China a more trusted major power open to the rest of the world.
Xi’s anti-corruption campaign that began when he took the helm in 2012 has earned him popular support. His hard-line diplomacy has been punctuated by China’s increasing assertive maritime postures, such as its alleged militarization of disputed territories in the South China Sea. But while he pushes political regimentation at home, including a crackdown on dissident speech, sources of popular discontent such as the growing rich-poor divide and environmental problems remain deep-seated and threaten to grow as the country’s once breakneck-speed economic growth rapidly decelerates.
Recent developments in China point to Xi tightening his grip on power even further and simultaneously stepping up his crackdown on reformist elements. In a plenum of its Central Committee in October, the Communist Party upgraded Xi’s status by declaring him to be a “core leader” — a position that sets him apart from others in the party leadership — and marked the declaration down in an official document. Although the party justifies concentration of power in Xi as a useful means of furthering party unity, reform-oriented officials and intellectuals charge that it would undermine intraparty democracy and collective leadership. Even in the field of economic policies — which was the domain of the No. 2 party leader Premier Li Keqiang — Xi has begun since last year to come to the fore and take the lead in key decisions.
Last summer, authorities targeted Yanhuang Chunqiu, China’s most influential liberal political journal with a history of a quarter century, by dismissing the publisher, Du Daozheng, and installing a new editorial team. The magazine’s website made it clear that the dismissal and reorganization of the editorial team were based on guidelines from the party’s Organization Department, and state regulations on press and publications. In November, the National People’s Congress, China’s largely rubber-stamp parliament, adopted a cybersecurity law for the ostensible purpose of countering computer hacking and terrorism — which China’s rights advocates fear could increase authorities’ online censorship that restricts free speech in the web sphere.
At the beginning of this year, the Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection decided to establish in 2018 the “state inspection commission,” an independent organ to prevent and uncover corruption of public servants. The planned body, which will be on the same level as the State Council or China’s government, will be all-powerful and able to investigate public servants at all levels nationwide, including workers in administrative organizations and schoolteachers. It will help further cement Xi’s control over the bureaucracy as he hopes to increase public trust in the party by eradicating corruption among government officials.
Earlier this month, Xi became the first top Chinese leader to attend at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, which appeared to signal Beijing’s willingness to take on a bigger role on the global stage — just as the United States was about to see the inauguration of a new president who campaigned to victory on an “America First” slogan and protectionist promises to bring back jobs that he believes were lost to free trade. Speaking before the world’s premier political and business leaders, Xi cautioned against protectionism and warned that “no one will emerge as a winner in a trade war” — in an apparent reference to U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies that view China as a key culprit for the woes of American manufacturing workers.
Xi may be seeking to fill the possible vacuum in global leadership as many Western leaders become more inward-looking as they tend to problems at home. It will indeed be a positive sign if China under Xi is seeking cooperation with the rest of the world to take on a more leading role to address global problems. But that could be in doubt if Xi is merely seeking to pursue China’s “core interests” and maintain the Communist Party’s dictatorship at home. His repetition of China’s “peaceful rise” message and his disavowal of any intention to expand its sphere of influence do not seem to match the country’s record of defense buildup and maritime aggressiveness.
Xi should realize that he needs to pursue domestic political and economic reforms, and refrain from seeking international hegemony if he wants to turn China into a major power that is welcomed by other countries. This fall, five of the seven members of the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee, its highest body, are expected to step down as they reach the retirement age of 68, with only Xi and Li remaining. Xi should use the party congress as a chance to rejuvenate its leadership by tapping young and reform-oriented future leaders. To build a foundation for China to become a respected power in the international community, Xi should be willing to listen to the opinions of others within the party and grass-roots views of the people, instead of concentrating power in himself.
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